Saskatchewan·ON THE LEDGE

Sask. Premier Scott Moe's Christmas 'hope' at odds with COVID-19 surge

As the opening week of the Saskatchewan legislative fall sitting went on, the message around Christmas and COVID-19 evolved from hope to warnings.

Manitoba premier urges his citizens to 'stay apart'

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said he is still hopeful some restrictions may be eased by Christmas. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

As the opening week of the Saskatchewan legislative fall sitting went on, the message around Christmas and COVID-19 evolved from hope to warnings.

On Monday, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe offered a Christmas wish — the potential easing of some COVID-19 restrictions over the holidays — but a pair of sobering updates from health officials make it hard to see how Moe could deliver.

The fall sitting began with a Throne Speech that thanked health-care staff, workers, educators, first responders and the people of the province for their efforts in the COVID-19 fight.

The government's speech also said its top priority was reducing the spread of the virus.

Following Monday's speech, Moe met with reporters and said the government needed some time to see if restrictions that went into effect on Nov. 27 would have the desired impact in reducing new cases.

"Maybe at some point between now and Christmas, have a conversation around maybe some of those restrictions relaxing slightly to allow us to come together in a little larger numbers as we enter the holiday season."

Moe said this would not be the only consideration. Tightening restrictions or the status quo would also be on the table.

He said it was likely the government would wait until Dec. 17, just eight days before Christmas, to make a decision.

Moe said that if hospitalizations or other indicators were favourable, it may allow the restriction on private gatherings of five people to "creep up just a little bit."

He said he hoped "we could have a few people in our home for Christmas and for the holiday season for a couple of days."

Moe said he and his wife were not planning on seeing extended family over Christmas.

Moe cited Quebec as an example. Last month, Quebec Premier François Legault announced a "moral contract" whereby people would be allowed to gather in groups of 10 over four-days, from Dec. 24 through Dec. 27, if they isolated for a week before and after.

On Thursday, Legault cancelled that plan and prohibited gatherings due to surging COVID-19 cases.

Other premiers are also sounding the alarm over traditional Christmas gatherings.

On Thursday, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister asked Manitobans to stay apart. That province is under a significant lockdown and has the second most COVID-19 cases per capita, behind Alberta.

"I'm the guy who has to tell you to stay apart at Christmas and in the holiday season you celebrate," Pallister said. "I'm that guy and I'll say that because it will keep you safe. I'm the guy who's stealing Christmas to keep you safe."

British Columbia Premier John Horgan said people in his province should keep gatherings to "an absolute minimum." He also called for a pan-Canadian non-essential travel ban.

Sask. CMHO says province would 'pay the price' for holiday gatherings 

On Wednesday, Saskatchewan chief medical health officer Dr. Saqib Shahab said people should only travel inter-provincially for essential reasons.

Shahab shared up-to-date information on COVID-19 cases and their trajectory. He did not commit to recommending rules be adjusted for Christmas.

He said the province would "pay the price" in January if it eased restrictions over the holidays.

Shahab said he would be comfortable with between 60-120 new cases of COVID-19 a day, as those figures would not overwhelm the health system.

Saskatchewan's daily new cases average over the past week has been 262.

Shahab said Saskatchewan saw a jump in new cases after Thanksgiving. He said at the time gathering limits were higher and the weather was milder than it will be in a few weeks.

"We don't want to bend the rules, we want to bend the curve," Shahab said.

He said the goal over the Christmas break is to "stabilize" the numbers so schools can return in January with less pressure.

'I haven't given up hope': Moe

On Thursday, Moe was asked again about the potential for restrictions easing in time for Christmas. 

Moe said he "wouldn't commit" to following Shahab's statement Wednesday that 120 new cases a day would be when restrictions may be eased.

He said making a decision now "may not be the decision that I would want and that I think many other families across the province would want."

Moe's main message on Christmas had shifted in three days on several fronts, from potential home gathering limit increases to long-term care visits.

"We'll have the discussion about whether or not there are any opportunities for maybe a visit with full PPE gear in a long-term care facility or not," he said.

"I haven't given up hope."

SHA surge plan paints stark picture

That hope seems to be in opposition to the latest measures taken by the Saskatchewan Health Authority (SHA) and its projections for where the virus is heading.

On Thursday afternoon, SHA CEO Scott Livingstone announced plans to implement a new surge plan. 

"The pressures on our system are intense," said Livingstone. "We are pushing things to the limit."

The province needs another 250 beds, plus another 64 spaces for people requiring intensive care, to handle the surge in COVID-19 cases expected in the next two weeks.

The SHA is projecting daily cases to more than double to 560 a day by Dec. 15 and the number of patients in ICU to more than double from 24 to 64.

As of Thursday, 31 per cent of the province's ICU beds were being used by COVID-19 patients.

To meet the expected demand, the SHA is scaling back some services and redeploying 600 full-time equivalents to COVID-19 efforts.

Livingstone said the SHA was "not in process of opening up field hospitals, but we are preparing teams."

The SHA said it would use modelling to determine when to open up the centres, which would care for patients in a non-acute setting.

Livingstone said recent modelling by the SHA has been accurate.

Field hospitals have been set up in Regina and Saskatoon in case they are needed during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted by the Saskatchewan Health Authority)

SHA chief medical health officer Dr. Susan Shaw said cutting transmissions instantly will not prevent hospitalizations of those who were recently diagnosed.

"[They are] just going to be becoming ill enough to start hospital and ICU admission."

Shaw urged people to keep their bubbles small, stay home and wear a mask.

The SHA said a surge in cases could overwhelm the system, despite its best efforts.

NDP asks Moe to follow public health advice

NDP Leader Ryan Meili said the government missed its opportunity to lower case numbers by Christmas.

Meili said a "circuit breaker" three-week lockdown imposed in November would have Saskatchewan on a downward trend on the COVID-19 curve.

"That's what would have saved Christmas. I think trying to spin people a story that somehow we'll be opening up for Christmas at the same time as we're really going to be opening field hospitals is dishonest," Meili said.

Meili said decisions around Christmas restrictions should be based on data.

"I want to make sure that we're listening to the best public health advice and public health experts, not what Scott Moe thinks might make him look like a hero at Christmas time," Meili said Thursday.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam Hunter

Journalist

Adam Hunter is the provincial affairs reporter at CBC Saskatchewan, based in Regina. He has been with CBC for more than 14 years. Follow him on Twitter @AHiddyCBC. Contact him: adam.hunter@cbc.ca

with files from CBC News and The Canadian Press

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